While we wait for the harsh realities of Covid to change, the government could show compassion for those stuck overseas by revisiting the digital queue, writes supply chain expert Tava Olsen.
The booking system for New Zealand’s managed isolation system has been making headlines recently, with a market emerging for hired help to hit refresh in search of spaces, alongside various scripts and bots that automate much of the process. The critical issue is that the computer-savvy can jump ahead to grab a new spot, leaving behind those who have been trying for months to get a place. This fundamental unfairness is not OK in my mind; there are better systems possible.
Queueing theory 101 (the science of waiting) has long shown that unfair waiting comes at a high psychological cost. Everyone reading this will know how someone cutting ahead of you in a queue raises your own blood pressure. Now imagine you are desperate to come home and are faced with a system where how long you have been trying is irrelevant to your access to a space. A system where bots can be coded to scoop up spaces as they become available, leaving regular people in the cold.
The key challenge, as emphasised by the minister for the Covid response, Chris Hipkins, is that demand exceeds supply. That is true, but this is far from the only system where that is the case. Imagine if we ran our kidney allocation system this way! Where desperate patients needed to keep hitting the refresh button on the system to see if a newly donated kidney had popped up, so they could jump on and sign up for it. Clearly, that would be ridiculous, and yet kidney allocation is another system where demand exceeds supply; sadly, some people die before receiving a donor kidney. There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of research articles written on kidney allocation systems. Articles on managing queueing systems, in general, are even more plentiful.
In the commercial world, when demand exceeds supply, it is often possible to raise prices and thus depress demand. That is probably not a desirable solution for MIQ booking. Therefore, one needs to go to tried and true queueing solutions of prioritisation, rationing, and delays.
First, prioritisation. The compassionate consideration system seems to be working, but it feels to me that there should be another priority class that sits below the compassionate consideration class but above the general pool. Those waiting to move to New Zealand permanently should have higher priority than those returning from visiting a healthy loved one abroad. While we wish we had enough spaces for both, that is not currently the case.
In terms of rationing, we are already doing that with our very restrictive visa system. We are limiting demand by denying entry to the people who would usually travel to New Zealand. Could we do more rationing? Probably. We could ensure that travel is essential for people looking to leave and then return. But that would be complex and a very long low-priority waiting line is probably a better solution for such travel.
Another solution that has been mooted is a lottery system. This is the system for some US Green Card allocations but is relatively uncommon in general. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other on this, but it feels unnecessary. A well-managed waitlist, where participants need to reregister their interest in a space regularly, is probably sufficient. Of course, with a waitlist we would see the true extent of the backlog, which may not be politically pleasant. But it is probably a good idea anyway.
By this point, readers may be wondering why I haven’t discussed the supply-side. Why don’t we simply increase our MIQ capacity (particularly for paying travellers)? My understanding is that the key capacity constraint is actually the personnel availability of our defence forces. As someone currently experiencing MIQ (I managed to get myself trapped in Sydney – entirely my own fault), I can assure you that they indeed do an excellent job. A system without the current level of defence force oversight would be more vulnerable to breaches. But this is perhaps something that could be considered for travellers from low-risk countries who are fully vaccinated. Something to consider going forward.
Indeed, the current restrictions on spaces are causing a lot of pain, both small and large. On the small side, my husband would love to attend his sister’s 50th birthday in the US, but that is not likely to happen, which is probably OK in a global pandemic. More significantly, my university has overseas employees we have hired but can’t get into the country because they don’t make the salary threshold for a special visa. Our students are not very impressed about being taught by people on Zoom, yet hiring locally is simply not practical in these fields. Then there are all the students who would love to study with us but can’t enter the country. Those opposed to international students may not realise just how much they subsidise high-quality education for domestic students and also allow for a much greater variety of choice in subjects that would not be viable to offer for just the domestic market. There are no easy answers here.
The final option, of course, would be to move away from the government’s strategy of elimination. While perhaps appealing, it is too early. My view is that the “live with the virus” proponents don’t understand exponential growth. There is no “living with” a virus with an R0 of 6 where most of the population has no immunity. It would continue to spread and infect, and vulnerable people would be stuck self-isolating indefinitely; a good number would die. I’m sure you all join me in hoping that vaccines change the equation on this.
So while we wait for the harsh realities to change, I would call on the government to show compassion for those stuck overseas by changing the MIQ booking system to something fair. In addition, adding visibility and providing estimates of waits, even if very very long, would help provide a degree of certainty, and therefore comfort, to those currently suffering from our necessarily closed borders.
Professor Tava Olsen is Director of the Centre for Supply Chain Management at the University of Auckland Business School